On the heels of revolution in Egypt, existential questions in the struggle for democracy

It’s becoming clear Morsi has no interest in governing as a democrat

Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty

Well, that didn’t take long.

Less than six months since Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first genuinely democratically elected president, it’s becoming clear he’s not all that interested in governing as a democrat.

Late last month, Morsi, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, granted himself sweeping new power preventing any authority, including the judiciary, from revoking his decisions. He said he will give these up after a new constitution is ratified following a referendum on Dec. 15.

But Morsi’s opponents fear the constitution, drafted by Islamists, will irrevocably change Egyptian society and politics, subverting democracy to sharia, or Islamic law. Opposition that had been bubbling for months has exploded.

Clashes between Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and his opponents — who include secular liberal and leftist revolutionaries, as well as supporters of former president Hosni Mubarak — have resulted in at least five deaths and hundreds injured. The man who came to power on the heels of a democratic revolution now governs from a presidential palace fronted by barbed wire and guarded by tanks.

“Yesterday was really horrible. It was one of the blackest days in Cairo,” says Mozn Hasan, executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, an NGO, speaking of the protests. She says Muslim Brothers attacked Morsi’s opponents with tear gas and bullets, while police did nothing to stop them.

“It was hard because — it’s not logical — but maybe you can see the point when it’s a policeman or a military person attacking you. But having another civilian person, it was shocking.”

Morsi’s opponents have also accused his opponents of violence, including the use of Molotov cocktails. Deaths reportedly occurred on both sides of the political divide.

In a televised address tonight, Morsi expressed sorrow for those deaths and called for dialogue with the opposition. But he made no major concessions and claimed that protesters had been paid to foment violence. He said 80 people had been detained for involvement in violent acts.

According to Nadine Sherif of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, this divide is more fundamental than traditional political disputes.

“While the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to portray this as a clash between political foes — the remnants of the old regime, leftover Mubarak-era judges, against the up-and-coming Muslim Brotherhood — that does not hold water on the ground,” she says.

“The issue now isn’t political, it’s existential. It’s about the character of the Egyptian society and culture.”

That character has changed since the revolution of January 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians are no longer afraid of their rulers. Morsi might have been counting on Egyptians’ complacency when he sought to eliminate checks on his authority, but he underestimated them.

“People after the revolution are not the same,” says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “They are not going to wait for 30 years of repression to have another revolution.”

The protests says Hasan, are in part to show that Egyptians are diverse, that they are not all political Islamists — either Muslim Brothers or the more fundamentalist Salafists who have also taken leading positions in Egyptian politics since the revolution. “There is something deeper in Egypt, more than this.”

Perhaps because of that diversity, the opposition is still fragmented. There have been some moves to unite behind a body calling itself the National Salvation Front, whose leading members include: Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s last prime minister; and Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It’s unclear how much support the group has among street level protesters. Moussa, who ran and lost against Morsi in the presidential election, still caries the taint of his association with the Mubarak regime. ElBaradei failed to drum up much popular excitement when he joined the original revolution last year. Mahmoud Salem, a popular blogger and activist, described him as “the ugly chick you take to the dance when you can find no one else.”

But Egypt’s democratic revolution was a grassroots movement that didn’t depend on one leader at its inception. It may struggle forward in the same fashion.

“It’s hard emotionally,” says Hasan. “But at the same time, what’s been happening in Egypt since 1952 will not change in two years. It needs a lot. But what’s hard is that it would [take] the blood of those innocent people. Accepting that is hard for me.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.